Activists raise red flag over Argentina’s green hydrogen project

Construction of multibillion-dollar plant threatens Indigenous land rights and the natural environment, critics say.

By Amy Booth / Al Jazeera.- The remote steppes of Argentina’s Rio Negro province are home to a rich, biodiverse ecosystem that for millennia has been disturbed only by the strong Patagonian winds. Now, these windswept plains could become the site of a massive new green hydrogen project.

The company aiming to build the project, Fortescue Future Industries, says it would create more than 15,000 direct jobs and put the province at the forefront of Argentina’s energy transition. But local activists say it could violate Indigenous land rights, harm the natural environment and endanger threatened condors.

The situation is fuelling debate over how to achieve a just transition towards sustainable energy.

“I understand the need for green hydrogen that the First World might have … There’s an expectation of replacing the gas that Russia and others provided with another kind of energy, now and in the future,” Maria Fabiana Vega, an Indigenous community activist in Rio Negro’s capital, Viedma, told Al Jazeera.

“But I think we all have to think in a different way, stop the consumption we’re immersed in, so we don’t harm other cultures and territories.”

Last November, Australia’s Fortescue announced plans to invest $8.4bn in a green hydrogen project near the town of Sierra Grande, in the south of Rio Negro province. It would involve constructing a huge wind park, power transmission lines, a hydrogen production plant and port infrastructure.

Green hydrogen is one of the fuels of the future and it fills us with pride that Argentina is one of the countries that’s at the vanguard of the ecological transition,” Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez said when the project was announced.

Unprecedented scale

But most of the hydrogen produced would probably be exported due to a lack of demand domestically, acknowledged Sebastian Delgui, Fortescue’s regional manager of government and communities for Latin America.

“Today, the main markets that are making the [energy] transition are Europe, Japan, Korea and the US,” he told Al Jazeera, noting the company foresees the future “development of demand” within Argentina.

Green hydrogen is produced by using renewable electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can power vehicles, heat homes and replace natural gas in fertiliser production. It is considered an emissions-free energy source because hydrogen produces water, rather than the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, when burned.

In the Rio Negro project, for which the provincial government has allocated around 625,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of land, electricity would be generated by an enormous wind farm.

“It’s a scale that doesn’t exist in Argentina,” Leonardo Salgado, an environmental activist and palaeontology professor at the National University of Rio Negro, told Al Jazeera. “It means using an important part of the area of the province to provide for countries in the Global North.”

The government says the land it has granted to Fortescue is owned by the state. But the area is home to dozens of Indigenous communities, and campaigners say the project cannot go ahead unless they are consulted and give consent, in line with the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, which Argentina has ratified.

The country is also conducting a nationwide survey of Indigenous communities to protect their rights to their ancestral lands, and communities cannot be evicted from disputed areas until the survey is complete.

But the process has been repeatedly delayed, and data from Argentina’s National Institute of Indigenous Affairs shows that several communities in the region have not yet been surveyed.

“So long as the survey of [Indigenous] community land isn’t complete, they can’t touch that land,” Vega said.

Delgui said Fortescue had conducted a social impact study with the local university, was working on an environmental assessment, and had asked the province to consult with community actors.

“We want there to be prior consultation, because … we’re convinced that the local communities have to accompany us,” he said. “The project will not advance without a consultation.”

Condors at risk

In January, Fortescue contracted the Argentine company IMPSA to supply wind measurement masts on the Somuncura plateau. The move triggered alarm bells among biologists, who say building a wind farm there would spell disaster for Andean condors, which are considered a threatened species in Argentina.

Evidence from Europe suggests the condors would likely fly into the wind turbines, according to Rayen Estrada Pacheco, a biologist with the nonprofit Argentine Bioandean Foundation’s condor conservation programme.

While the company says it will avoid areas where condors nest, Estrada Pacheco told Al Jazeera that the birds “really use all of the environment”.

In July, Fortescue told local media that it would pause the installation of wind measurement masts on the plateau as it waited for the provincial government to adapt its management plan for the area. “There isn’t a single mast on the Somuncura plateau,” Delgui said.

Other aspects of the project have also raised concerns among environmentalists. The water used in the electrolysis process would be taken from the sea, to preserve Rio Negro’s precious fresh water supplies. But this would require the construction of a desalination plant, and to be transported, hydrogen is often converted into ammonia, which can be harmful to humans and the environment if not managed properly.

Daniel Sanguinetti, Rio Negro’s state secretary for planning, told Al Jazeera that an environmental impact study was being conducted on the possible risks. The government has been working with community leaders to develop protocols for implementing the project, including time for public debate, he added.

With regards to the condors, “we have to preserve those 64 birds that have been released so far [in efforts to restore their population in this area], and we also have to support the planet, and also generate economic activity for 750,000 inhabitants of the province”, Sanguinetti said.

Still, Estrada Pacheco fears the project could put at risk decades of work: “It’s been an enormous effort for a lot of people and a lot of institutions … for the condor to return. To think that a company could install itself there, for a project to produce green hydrogen that isn’t even going to stay in the country – that’s very frustrating.”